(Photo : North Carolina State University)
Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed a new technique utilizing an electronic interface to remotely steer and control cockroaches. This technique could be of great help in search and rescue efforts after earthquakes, for example, where the cockroaches could be used to search under rubble and in places inaccessible to humans, to seek out survivors.
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"Our aim was to determine whether we could create a wireless biological interface with cockroaches, which are robust and able to infiltrate small spaces," Alper Bozkurt, assistant professor of electrical engineering at NC States and co-author of the cockroach paper said in a statement. "Ultimately, we think this will allow us to create a mobile web of smart sensors that uses cockroaches to collect and transmit information, such as finding survivors in a building that's been destroyed by an earthquake."
The researchers on this project first sought to find a cost-effective and safe way to control and steer the cockroaches and to ensure they would operate within defined parameters.
To do this, the researchers developed a technique that utilizes light-weight, commercially-available chips with a wireless receiver and transmitter that is attached to the cockroaches as a sort of "bug backpack." The device also contains a micro-controller that is wired to the cockroach's antennae and cerci, which are sensory organs used to detect motion, such as a predator makes when approaching, tipping the roach off to scurry away. The researchers attached the wires to the cerci to trick the cockroach into moving forward.
The wires that are attached to the antennae serve as "electric reins," and work by injecting small charges into the cockroach's neural tissue. This tricks the cockroach into thinking that the antennae have come up against a barrier and steers them in the opposite direction.
In the experiment shown in the video, the researchers were able to use the micro-controller to steer the cockroach along a line that curves in different directions. This is a first step toward the eventual use of cockroaches paired with this technology in real-life disaster scenarios.
"Building small-scale robots that can perform in uncertain, dynamic conditions is enormously difficult," Bozkurt said in a statement. "We decided to use bibotic cockroaches in place of robots, as designing robots at that scale is very challenging and cockroaches are experts at performing in hostile environments."